Creating Repeating Patterns in Illustrator

How to use the Adobe Illustrator CS Pattern Tool to make tiling patterns using images and vector shapes.

By Neil QuinnPosted in Ideas

The most recent updates of Adobe Illustrator CS have included a rather nifty Pattern Tool, which makes light work of making repeating and tiling patterns using images and vector shapes.

In this tutorial, we’ll run through the process used to create a series of patterns, using elements from a recent branding project for our client, Listening Heads. Find the Illustrator file we made for creating this pattern here.

Draw or Open Your Artwork

Any number of assets can be used in the pattern tool, such as; symbols, brushstrokes, geometric shapes, photographic objects. Before you start, ensure any placed objects are embedded (Window > Links > Embed Image).

In the file, you’ll find a set of vector shapes used to created the final pattern. This image above shows the first step of the process — creating a pattern from a group of shapes.

Opening the Pattern Tool

To open up the Pattern Tool, in the top menu bar, go to Object > Pattern > Make. A message box will appear telling you that the new pattern has been added to the Swatches panel.

Click OK to acknowledge the message and you’ll be dropped right into Pattern Edit Mode. Give it a useful name, which will help if you create multiple versions and identify them in the swatches panel.

Pattern Options

On the left of your screen you will see a new dialog box called Pattern Options. This is puppet master for the Pattern Tool, and ultimately controls how your shapes and graphics are arranged and behave in relation to each other. Any changes you make using this panel, will be change how your pattern is created in real-time in the work area.

At this early stage, the pattern is simply a repeating grid with a single vertical and horizontal axis. Within the Pattern Options box are plenty of settings that allow for many other permutations of patterns to be produced.

Tile Type lets you select from several pattern types, to change the way tiles are arranged when placed next to each other; grid, brick, or hex.

Overlap allows you to choose which part and how the pattern overlaps (Right in font, left in front, Top in front, bottom in front)  -  hover over each button to reveal a tooltip label.

The height and width options let you control the size of the tile you’d like to repeat to make up your tiling swatch. Checking Size Tile to Art will shrink or grow the tile to fit around your artwork. Move Tile with Art will move the tile whenever and wherever your artwork moves.

Show Tile Edge (solid blue line) will show the area of the repeating element that you’re working with.

Show Swatch Bounds (dashed blue line) shows the edge of the pattern swatch you’re creating  -  this again is particularly useful for ensuring smooth seams or joins in the finished piece. This can be a different size to the Tile Edge, depending on the size of overlap you’re using.

Number of Copies is another visual aid that enables you to clearly see how the finished pattern will end up.

Editing the Pattern

Once in Edit Mode, you’re free to add, delete, move and edit shapes however you wish. Changes to shapes within the blue-lined Tile area are made in-real time, so you can clearly see the effect your changes are having on the overall design of the pattern.

The Tile Type dropdown menu allows you to arrange your shapes in a number of ways; in a simple Grid, Brick by Row, Brick by Column, Hex by Column, Hex by Grid. Each option will dictate how your pattern tiles interact with each other and sit alongside each other. A bit of experimentation here will give the best results.

Check the Dim Copies checkbox and set the percentage to around 70%, you’ll now be able to see how the pattern interacts in areas that overlap — great for creating repeating patterns and textures.

Once you’re happy with the changes and the look of your pattern, click Done in the top left of the work area to close Edit Mode. Your new pattern will now appear in the swatches pattern — if you’ve created very similar patterns, giving each file a proper name will help you locate it in the swatches panel.

How to Use Your New Pattern

Once you’ve created your new pattern, simply draw a new shape and then fill the shape with the pattern now found in the swatches panel.

When you’re ready to use the pattern, navigate to the Swatch Panel options and choose Open Swatch Library > Other Swatch Library. Navigate to where you saved the file and click Open. Now your new pattern is ready to use  - hurrah!

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